September 28, 2016
Posted in: Culinary Arts

How to Handle Substitutions

Substitution demands require chefs to think fast on their feet.

As a chef, you put all of your culinary academy training into developing recipes that show off your finest cooking techniques and highlight fresh, delicious ingredients. Whether you work in catering, an institutional cafeteria or a restaurant, you will encounter diners who want a dish prepared a little differently from the way you intended. Requests for substitutions may stem from dietary restrictions or just personal preference, but either way, a chef must think about how to manage these requests.

Why substitutions matter
It benefits professional cooks and their businesses to have some flexibility in tailoring dishes for specific diners. As Eater explained, food allergies and intolerances can be major problems. While allergies to peanuts, shellfish, tree nuts, milk, egg, wheat, soy or fish are the most common, people can suffer ill effects from a wide array of unusual allergens.

“Food allergies and intolerances can be major problems.”

These allergies may lead to digestive issues, hives or even potentially deadly anaphylaxis, so it’s wise for professional kitchens to take care in avoiding cross-contamination when making substitutions for an allergic guest. Meanwhile, food intolerances may seem relatively minor since they will not cause anaphylactic shock, but they can still cause plenty of discomfort.

On the other hand, some people are just picky eaters. Chefs think a great deal about how to balance the flavors in every dish, but not every diner has the same tastes. Guests appreciate when kitchens accommodate their preferences, even if the dish’s creator may not fully approve.

Bethany Thayer, director of  Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, spoke to the Chicago Tribune about how cooks can get diners to accept particular ingredients. Since an aversion to an item is often a matter of texture, altering the cooking method sometimes completely changes a person’s reaction. Otherwise, changing up the sauce or combining the disliked food with another one the individual loves might make the difference.

Establish a policy
Many chefs set up specific policies concerning what substitutions are allowed. While some diners still request exceptions to the rules, having clear guidelines makes it simpler to guide them to dishes they will enjoy.

Some restaurant chefs go as far as establishing a strict refusal to make any changes to their dishes. They may reason that changes lead to a poorly balanced dish or feel their staff will be overtaxed by filling specific requests. However, a chef may also simply believe that he or she is not obligated to cater to guests, who can eat elsewhere if they don’t like what is on the menu.

Writing for Bon Appetit, Jason Kessler criticized this attitude, pointing out the major differences between refusing substitutions for reasons of taste and other, more pressing concerns. Either food sensitivities or personal beliefs might lead guests to ask a restaurant to make an exception to a “no substitutions” policy. If the chef refuses even simple requests for changes, he or she will garner a reputation for being inhospitable.

As you earn a culinary certificate online, consider how you could rework dishes to remove allergens or suit individual tastes. Adapting to the needs and desires of diners is an important skill, and considering your policies ahead of time will prepare you to meet their requests.